The way 2020 was going, Brooks Koepka needed something to happen. When he arrived at TPC Sawgrass for the Players Championship, he had played just three tournaments in the calendar year: T-43, T-47 and a missed cut. He was struggling with a nagging knee injury, one which required surgery last fall, and felt like he was hitting the ball, as he put it, like “s—.” He shot a career-worst 81 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and then flew to Las Vegas for a lesson with Butch Harmon—a noteworthy move because his teacher has long been Butch’s son, Claude Harmon III.
Despite winning four majors in three years and finishing 2019 as world No. 1, Koepka had fallen out of the best-in-the-world discussion. It is Rory McIlroy, or Jon Rahm, or maybe Justin Thomas. But, at least at that moment, certainly not Koepka.
Something did indeed happen. Something terrible, on the macro scale, but something rather fortuitous for Koepka’s on-course prospects. COVID-19.
“I got lucky,” Koepka said on Wednesday of the near three-month coronavirus stoppage, which began when the Players was canceled after one round and ends Thursday, when the first ball of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial soars into the air.
“It was definitely beneficial for me. I was able to kind of reassess where I was at, get the knee stronger. The knee is back. It’s a lot better. And then finally being able just to swing the club the right way, and kind of get back to the process or the way of thinking that I had before.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise for me, without a doubt, and I’m excited to see what happens here.”
Koepka has ramped up practice in recent weeks at his home club, The Floridian, playing frequently with Shane Lowry and Kristoffer Ventura. Koepka, who is sporting a thick mustache this week, has been encouraged by the progress he’s made.
“At the Players, it was starting to come around,” he said of his swing. “But right now it’s a million times better. The swing feels like it’s in a great spot. I’m controlling the ball flights, controlling spin, yardages, putting it good, chipping it good. I feel like a new person, honestly. The way I’m able to move right now is a lot better than I was three months ago, four months ago, and I’m excited. It really is going to be fun to tee it up.”
When he does tee it up—1:06 p.m. local time off the first tee—he’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at two players who have passed him in the world rankings: McIlroy and Rahm. Much has been made of a potential McIlroy-Koepka rivalry, with both men being close in age and having gone toe-to-toe down the stretch of a few tournaments. Koepka got the better of him at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, whereas McIlroy came out on top at the Tour Championship.
“Yeah, I’ve got eyes on Rory,” Koepka said. “That’s the goal, to get back to No. 1. That’s the whole point of playing, is to be the best.
He added later: “I mean, I don’t really view it as a rivalry. It’s not something where I go out and play and I’m like man, I’ve got to beat Rory this week. What happens if Rory misses the cut?…You’re just trying to play the best you can play.”
Koepka is making just his second career start at Colonial, but his debut went quite well—a pair of 63s en route to a solo second finish in 2018. And yet, he’s listed as low as 28-1 on some sportsbooks, evidence that his early-year struggles are looming large in the minds of oddsmakers. A similar performance this time around would go a long way in showing oddsmakers—and the golf world as a whole—that those struggles are a thing of the past.